United States Capitol
Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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All manner of things seemed possible in 2020, up to and including the end of humankind, but at least one of those changes looked positive: The politics of crime and punishment might finally be shifting in this country. But in the wake of the Senate’s vote Wednesday, nearly three years after the racial justice protests of that summer, it’s hard to feel so hopeful.

The resounding 81-14 vote to block revisions to D.C.’s criminal code (combined with President Joe Biden’s promise to sign the bill) is a blow to the District’s efforts to gain statehood and full self governance, to be sure. But it also reveals just how little has changed on the local and national levels when it comes to discussions of crime and policing.

Leave aside the specifics of the criminal code revision legislation, which was hardly the “open the jails” bill its opponents described. (If anything, it would have made life easier for prosecutors in many respects by adding new categories of crime to the code—hardly the goal of prison abolitionists.) But the facts around the bill were never going to matter once it got swept into the binary world of national politics. Local critics like Mayor Muriel Bowser helped to sand off any nuance with her appeals to the fears of her constituents.

Mayor Muriel Bowser Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

Witness one Republican senator after another claiming Wednesday that D.C. is some unlivable hellscape that Congress must protect, an assertion that is so obviously untrue to anyone that has spent more than five minutes in the District that it is barely worth addressing. Yet Loose Lips is hard-pressed to find anyone on the national stage who had the courage to say so; in fact, Senate Democrats, the White House, and even multiple writers at the Washington Post helped encourage this perception.

There is crime in the city, of course, and statistics suggest there’s been a modest but meaningful increase in some types of crimes, largely concentrated in the same neighborhoods that have suffered from segregation and underinvestment for decades now. But it is awfully hard for LL to believe that much of the outrage over crime in the city stems from sincere concern about these people.

Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, gave the game away with the sign she displayed during her riveting speech Wednesday: “LIFE in Biden’s America” blared the headline, with “Leave the House” positioned above an outline of a corpse surrounded by caution tape. (Certainly not the most ridiculous sign ever displayed in Congress, but LL might question the wisdom of referencing a decades-old board game in political communications these days.) It showed clearly that the criminal code debate was always about one thing: fear.

On the national level, Republicans were not shy about implying that Biden and his allies were turning loose an army of criminals bent on despoiling quaint communities (you do not have to be particularly bright to detect the racial undertones here). Things were a bit more complex on the local level, but Council Chairman Phil Mendelson was blunt in accusing Bowser and other code revision opponents of engaging in similar “fearmongering.” Bowser’s appeals were aimed squarely at people in poorer neighborhoods actually impacted by gun violence and those in wealthier areas who are in virtually no danger, but who are more apt to feel a general anxiety about crime headlines (or to conflate visible evidence of poverty, particularly homelessness, with “crime,” writ large).

None of this is unpredictable based on many other examples in American history. But it is certainly depressing that this debate remains the same as ever after millions of people took to the streets in 2020, demanding a better way, and some of the same politicians to join them just three years ago have now just tossed their concerns aside.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

There is ample evidence that longer sentences demanded by those opposed to the criminal code revision have essentially no bearing on reducing crime. There’s even broad recognition across the political spectrum that prisons are stuffed with people (particularly people of color) who don’t need to be there, and that their incarceration only further destabilizes their families and communities. It was noted liberal President Donald J. Trump, after all, that backed a modest criminal justice reform law just a few years ago.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone making these arguments and standing up to the fearmongering Wednesday. Biden and his Democratic colleagues, as afraid of their own shadows as ever, retreated in the face of even the vague threat of GOP attack ads. They’ve all talked a good game about reforming police departments and ending mass incarceration, but, facing the prospect of White midwestern voters somehow remembering this obscure issue a year and a half from now, they clammed up.

There will be plenty of recriminations among D.C. politicians about who is to blame for the code revision’s failure in the coming weeks, and LL would submit that Bowser should figure prominently in those discussions. It’s hard to dispute that the mayor’s very public opposition gave Republicans and Democrats alike permission to interfere with the criminal code, with no less astute an observer than Sen. Lindsey Graham arguing that “you don’t want to get to the left of the D.C. mayor.” That bickering will only get louder as Bowser promises to propose a “comprehensive public safety program” in the coming weeks that will almost certainly call for more cops, daring the Council to oppose her after watching this debate unfold.

Those are, however, fundamentally parochial issues. Criminal justice reform advocates in D.C. and across the country will have to answer a bigger question: Given what the past few weeks revealed about the state of crime politics in America, how will anything ever change?